After opening in 2009, Link light rail ridership has grown and grown. In 2010, the 15-mile line, from the airport to downtown, had almost 6.8 million boardings; in 2015, it had almost 11.7 million. Most of these boardings happened at the Westlake Station and the SeaTac/Airport Station, the powerhouses of the young and expanding line. Anyone who knows Link knows that it is dependable and rapid. If you need to get somewhere, and that place is near one of its stations, there is an excellent chance that you will arrive near to or right on time.
In fact, any doubts I had about the greatness of light rail were dispelled by a defining experience I had one morning in 2010. What happened is this: I woke up and realized that the train I had to catch (one of those super-early Amtrak Cascades trains to either Portland or Vancouver, BC) was departing in 25 minutes. I live in Columbia City, and King Street Station is in Pioneer Square—could this distance be covered with such little time? I left the house and was at Columbia City Station in four minutes. A train arrived within five minutes. The trip took nine minutes. And I was in a Cascades car with two minutes to spare.
There's no way I, a person who does not own a car (or know how to drive), could have made that train if my only options were the bus or a cab—these were the dark days before Uber, Lyft, and ride-sharing apps. And even if they were in existence, app-based cabs are rarely available in my neck of the woods at that time of the morning. As for the bus? That would have meant taking the route 7, which is slow and has most of its stops on one of the worst streets in the city, Rainier Avenue South.
Even early in the morning, one wants little to do with this impressively bad street. And this has less to do with the street (though it has several structural problems, particularly where it connects with I-90) than those who use it. Is it the volcano floating in the distance? Is it the street's general straightness? Is it that it cuts through a place between the hills and the lake? Whatever it may be, drivers who enter this stretch of road go from bad to worse.
According to statistics gathered and disclosed by Erica C. Barnett in a post for Seattle Transit Blog titled "SDOT Will Finally Make Rainier Safer," Rainier Avenue has an average of one crash a day. Some of those crashes end up in the middle of small businesses. In 2014, there was a 15-car crash that injured nine people, including a cop. In 2015, a three-car crash flung debris onto the roofs of nearby homes. High speeds played a role in these accidents. People are supposed to move at 30 miles an hour down Rainier, but that rule is often broken because it's not consistently enforced. At rush hour, however, little moves.
If I did not work on Capitol Hill and live in Columbia City, I'd never have to use this awful street for anything. It has caused me nothing but misery and a few close calls. All of that changes with the opening of Capitol Hill Station. I will never ever have to see that Rainier again. Never! Never! Never! Never! Never! Yes, the city is making structural improvements on Rainier. Yes, they plan to reduce the speed limit to 25 miles per hour. Yes, there is a "road diet" going on between Columbia City and Hillman City. Yes, the city is to provide more funds for traffic policing. All of this is great, but it is too little too late. The only place I want to encounter Rainier Avenue is when crossing it to get to Lottie's Lounge or in a dream.
I have to admit here that this break with Rainier is something of a luxury. I can afford a standard ORCA card, which costs $90 a month and gives me unlimited access to Link. (If you make low wages, you can get the same kind of ORCA card for $53 a month; go to orcacard.com for more info.) But many people in South Seattle find it very difficult to even get 53 dollars to come together all at once. Each dollar they have has the tendency to repel the others. As a consequence, the indigent will most likely use the buses on Rainier, which are cheaper and have the added advantage of being more porous (meaning, less policed) than Link, which is regularly monitored by fare enforcers. We can thus expect a class divide to occur between the two forms of public transportation.
Nevertheless, from now on my life will look like this: a four-minute walk to the Columbia City Station, a five-minute wait, a 20-minute train ride to Capitol Hill Station, and a five-minute walk to my office. Indeed, I will now be less connected with many parts of this city (West Seattle, Magnolia, Queen Anne, and other neighborhoods without light rail stops), than with Queens, Brooklyn, or Manhattan. That particular situation will be as smooth as this: four minutes to the station, 20 minutes to the airport, five hours in the air, 20 minutes to AirTrain, 20 minutes to the Howard Beach Station, 20 minutes on the A Train, 10 minutes from Broadway Junction to the place I often stay in that city.
Or, closer by: light rail to an Amtrak Cascades train to Vancouver's SkyTrain. Or, in the other direction: light rail to an Amtrak Cascades train to Portland's MAX.
Why we did not have Link for so long will be the mystery for those in the future to figure out.